A conspiracy of silence has deep roots in the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese, and in church law itself, where secret archives are used to hide scandalous information, such as sex abuse by priests.
And until recently, the conspiracy of silence often was aided and abetted by police and judges, who wanted the diocese to handle its problems internally.
Locally, a mid-1990s lawsuit against the diocese and since-defrocked Francis Luddy, accused of sexually abusing young boys, saw the first cracks in the churchs wall of silence.
Nationally, the sex scandal that started in Boston and spread from coast to coast, has torn down that wall of silence. Now, everyone’s talking, either in court or in the court of public opinion.
But in the eight-county Altoona-Johnstown diocese, during the past several decades, errant priests were kept secret from their parishioners, often with police and even a few judges helping out.
Records gathered for the Luddy trial in 1994, and only being made public in light of the national scandal, along with publicity about church Roman canon law, tell the story.
Documents have been withheld because they are believed to be protected under centuries-old religious doctrine, said the attorney who sued the diocese in the Luddy case.
Priests accused of sexual misconduct have been counseled to lay low and have been tipped off to police surveillance, court records show.
And in at least one case, a priest wasnâ€™t sent for psychiatric treatment because diocese officials feared it would be an admission of guilt, court records say.
Even now, amidst the national sex scandal and while other dioceses are acting publicly to cleanse their ranks of abusing priests, Bishop Joseph Adamec insists that sex abuse cases be handled privately.
Despite promises in the wake of the national bishop’s conference in Dallas last June, Adamec also has not reported all accusations of sex abuse to prosecutors, who now are objecting.
Even when recently confronted by a conservative Catholic lay group with specific evidence against four priests accused of sexual abuse, Adamec declined to offer assurances that the priests would be removed, at least temporarily, from contact with young boys while the allegations were investigated.
Instead, he wrote to the group saying, â€œWhatever cases there are, I have handled (them) appropriately.
His stance has the same appearance as that of his predecessor, Bishop James Hogan, who counseled priests not to get caught, and if they did to keep it quiet.
Altoona attorney Richard Serbin, who brought the suit against Francis Luddy, Hogan, Adamec and the diocese in general, cautions other attorneys about the difficulty in penetrating the church’s secrets.
In May’s issue of Trial magazine, Serbin said that victims do not always immediately step forward.
It is not unusual for victims of sexual abuse to contact legal counsel years after the assaults have ended. Guilt and embarrassment make many victims hesitant to come forward, he wrote.
Others repress their memories of the experience and only later recognize what occurred when an event or psychotherapy triggers a memory.
Serbin cautioned other lawyers that discovery is especially complicated by Roman canon law.
Some defendants contend that they are fully in compliance with discovery requests when they have excluded records they believe are protected under religious doctrine, he wrote.
Canon law mandates a secret archive in each diocese, Serbin wrote.
â€œEach year documents of criminal cases concerning moral matters are to be destroyed whenever the guilty parties have died, or 10 years have elapsed since a condemnatory sentence concluded the affair, Canon law says.
Only the bishop is to have the key to the secret archive, says Canon 490. Serbin said documents also are often written in a sort of secret code.
For example, the words â€˜sodomized, sexually molested and pedophilia will not appear. Instead, you will probably see certain indiscretions, familiarities, complaints, etc., he wrote.
Do not let a lack of explicit incriminatory language deceive you, he cautioned other lawyers.
In fact, testimony and documents in the Luddy 1994 trial described the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese’s often elaborate cover-ups of gays, pedophiles and sex abusers in the priesthood.
In 1985, several priests were identified in a police surveillance of bars and other areas known for being hangouts or pickup joints for prostitutes and/or homosexuals who were looking for young boys, according to court documents.
Police discovered a number of priests at these sites, and told then-Bishop James Hogan and one unnamed Blair County judge, who warned Hogan and threatened â€œthrowing the bookâ€� at the priests if Hogan didnâ€™t take action. But there were no arrests, only private conversations with Hogan.
Then, instead of disciplining the rogue priests, or insisting that police investigate further, Hogan tipped off the priests.
On March 15, 1985, court records show, Hogan wrote to the priests, telling them of the undercover police surveillance and warning them of a danger threatening the good name of the Church and inviting lawsuits.
His letter, made part of the record in the Luddy case, told the priests they had been spotted at cruising areas and had been identified by police.
He told the offending priests that cops were discussing it as the priest problem and that some complaints involved young boys, prompting a threat from a judge that he would hrow the book at them.
Hogan cautioned the priests in his letter that a homosexual orientation is not an excuse for intrinsically evil activity.
He urged the priests to ask for help and counseling if needed, but did nothing more, according to court testimony.
Lay low, say nothing
Court records also documented a meeting Hogan held with a priest who had been named by police.
The bishop counseled the priest to lay low, say nothing, court records show.
Hogan’s notes of the meeting, made part of public record during the Luddy trial, say the priest does not deny the accusations.
While father several times spoke of fighting, he senses futility no will.
The notes indicate Hogan discussed possible treatment for the priest, but not at one well-known mental hospital because it would be an admission of guilt.
They agreed that the priest would enter Georgetown Hospital in the Washington for â€œa physical workup.
At the local level, it would be described as nervous exhaustion, Hogan’s notes indicate.
Getting help from police
Hogan also relied on police to help him keep things quiet.
Court records show that in a 1984 investigation of an abusing priest, Hogan’s notes referred to a meeting with a state police officer, non-Catholic, but great. No desire to occasion publicity, etc.
And Hogan deliberately lied to the media to throw reporters off the trail of the story of a sex-abuser in the ministry.
In the mid-1980s, a group of parents complained that an Ebensburg priest, Francis McCaa, had abused their children.
County prosecutors and Hogan cut a deal that the priest would be transferred, and the parents would accept a financial settlement in return for their silence.
Word got out.
Hogan’s notes, made part of the Luddy trial record, say that a reporter contacted him, but he declined to discuss it as a personnel matter.
Then, when the story broke, Hogan lied, calling it untrue and â€œthe depth of irresponsible reporting, the cause of untold harm without a sound reason.
The pattern of secrets and cover-ups contributed to the financial penalties levied against the diocese in the Luddy trial, court records show.
The diocese’s 13 insurance carriers are refusing to pay the $1.2 million damages awarded to Luddy’s victim, arguing they are not responsible for the diocese’s negligence.
The diocese is suing the insurance carriers to force payment.
Legal fees and costs in the Luddy case are now up to $1.35 million, court records show.
Last week, the diocese was hit with another lawsuit, again filed by Serbin, and with more allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
Five men who were altar boys said they were abused by two priests. One is Luddy. The other is McCaa, the man Hogan said had been lied about.
No date has been set for that trial, and the diocese is still battling a $1 million award in the Luddy case.